Understanding the unique role horses play in helping heal trauma.
It was mid-afternoon on a warm spring day when Natalie* arrived at the Ranch for her first session. She had been going to therapy for half of her life with little change in her symptoms of depression, anxiety, nightmares and self- harm behaviors. This was a young woman who had never known life without some type of trauma. As an infant to a drug-addicted mom, she did not receive the safe, stable, nurturing care that leads to a healthy attachment. Compounding her experience of the world being an unsafe place, she was chronically sexually abused by a family member throughout her elementary and junior high school years. While she appeared “together” on the outside, she struggled daily to have the motivation to get out of bed and was hospitalized on multiple occasions for suicide attempts. If you had asked her, she would have described herself as worthless and damaged, believing that nothing would ever be different in her life.
After Natalie was shown around the Ranch and fitted with a helmet and boots, it was time to introduce her to some of the horses. As she entered the small paddock, after standing there for only moments, Freedom (a rescue who has been at the ranch for 6 months), came from the other side of the pasture and stood right next to her. It was a special and sacred moment: he put his face on her shoulder and remained steady. This was a horse who was a lot like Natalie and was not quick to trust. Natalie’s session leader shared some of Freedom’s story and background, which contributed to him generally startling easily and being cautious of humans. As Natalie listened to his history, her eyes filled with tears and she buried her face in his neck, saying, “I wonder if he has nightmares like me.” This was the start of Natalie learning how to build trust, stay grounded in the present moment and start to experience moments of joy.
One of the primary things that trauma does to an individual is rob them of their sense of safety. Even though they may logically know that the danger is over, their brain and body keeps them on high alert at all times. Trauma survivors may experience a variety of symptoms, including racing thoughts, intrusive images of the abuse, nightmares and hyper-vigilance. They also may feel numb, shut down, have no energy and feel disconnected. The beautiful thing about being in the presence of a 1200lb animal is that it invites the participant to be fully in the “here and now”. Every activity at the Ranch, whether it is grooming the horse at the beginning of the session, cleaning out a water trough or learning to ride, present opportunities to engage all the participant’s senses in the present moment.
We know that the perpetrators of child abuse are most often known and trusted caregivers of the child. When humans, especially trusted ones, have been the ones to cause such invasive and intrusive harm, building trust with an animal is the gentlest start. The animal-human bond has been extensively studied and researched, showing to promote wellness, body-awareness and positive health effects. Participants are afforded the opportunity to nurture the horses, learn about boundary-setting, become more in tune with their own emotions and body sensations and connect with a playful part of themselves that has often been repressed or forgotten. As the participants learn more about horsemanship, their confidence begins to grow and they become empowered. Equine assisted mentorship provides an opportunity for trauma survivors to learn new ways of being in the world. Being with a horse naturally increases self-awareness and self-regulation, both of which are critical in healing from trauma. Horses serve as nonjudgmental mirrors that help participants learn about themselves, their emotions and their energy. To effectively partner with a horse, participants must learn to tune in to their own body, breath and movements.
At the Ranch, we are able to witness, session after session, the sheer resiliency of kiddos and young adults. The volunteers and horses are able to offer hope and infuse joy. The word I have coined to describe this experience is: “majestical”. Seeing God work through these majestic creatures is just magical to watch. Healing is happening, lives are being transformed and God is getting all the glory. (Written by volunteer Amber Stevenson, LCSW LADAC)
*Name has been changed to protect participant’s confidentiality